Don’t underestimate your impact! For example, did you know that reducing fertilizer use in your yard, picking up your garbage after a picnic at the beach, and reducing the amount you water your lawn are all are things you can do to keep Lake Michigan healthy? Actions like these help keep the beaches open all summer and your drinking water supply clean and abundant.
Lake Michigan is not just a big body of water that never changes. Water flows in and out of the lake continuously. Humans, plants, animals, and fish all use the lake to eat, drink, wash, and have fun. This is such a part of our everyday lives that often we do not even think about it.
The three EcoMyths Chicago ePostcards since January have talked about the impacts that people and nature have on Lake Michigan: its beaches, water levels, and drinking water.
Our Influence on Beach Closings
When toilets flush, must Lake Michigan beaches always close? In January, EcoMyths showed you that overflows of sewage are not typically the culprit for contaminating our beaches. More often, beach closings stem from a problem with fertilizer runoff.
In fact, fertilizer from your lawn can travel for miles in natural streams that open up into Lake Michigan. Once in the lake, fertilizers promote the growth of algae mats, which grow large and can wash up on shore. These algae mats attract and shelter bird droppings full of E. coli bacteria, which can make people very sick.
It is also helpful, then, if you pick up your leftover food when departing from a fun day on the beach. Less garbage means less bird droppings in the water. When too much of this E. coli bacteria sticks around, local officials are forced to close the beach. So reducing fertilizer use and taking your garbage away from the beach can make a difference to your summer fun.
Changing Natural Cycles
Are recent drops in Lake Michigan water levels natural and no cause for concern? The February 2009 EcoMyth showed how water in the lake fluctuates four to seven feet every 15 years or so in a natural rhythm of climate and natural inflows and outflows of water.
Water flows naturally into Lake Michigan from Lake Superior, from ground water seepage, rain, snowmelt, and streams. Water also flows naturally out of Lake Michigan into Lake Huron, is lost via evaporation and diverted down the Chicago River.
For the past 10 years, Lake Michigan water levels have been staying more than a foot below the natural historic average of the past 150 years. Has something changed?
Human activity has changed the natural patterns of the lake. Historical dredging and other engineering projects have permanently altered lake levels. People have been taking more water out of Lake Michigan for drinking, sprinkling, and farming than we have been putting back in it. Groundwater is replenishing more slowly than it did in the past. The likelihood of additional climate changes toward warmer and drier conditions in the Midwest creates significant potential for additional lowering of lake levels.
Population is continuing to grow around Chicago, so each of us must reduce our water use in order to ensure that Lake Michigan water levels stabilize.
People Taking Better Care of Nature
Is it true that tap water from Lake Michigan isn’t safe to drink? No way! Chicago tap water, from Lake Michigan, is the best-tasting tap water of any city in the country—and we recently confirmed that it’s safe to drink to boot.
In March 2009, EcoMyths showed that the major historical sources of water pollution in Lake Michigan are being controlled. The Clean Water Act of 1972, a federal law that restricted industrial dumping into bodies of water, was instrumental in reducing pollutants in Lake Michigan.
Still, human sources of pollution remain. Some that we can prevent are the flushing of pharmaceuticals down our toilets and into the water system, as well as the lawn chemicals we discussed above.
It’s Up to You and Me
Every one of us can make a difference by being aware of what we wash down the drain.
With chemicals in the yard, medicines in the house, and the water we use, we all have choices.
If we push together in the same direction, it makes an impact. Together, let’s vow to:
- Keep the beaches clean of food waste
- Use less fertilizer
- Use less water—water the flowers, but not the lawn
- Dispose of medicines in the trash, in a sealed container
- Drink tap water in reusable bottles instead of buying bottled water
- Work with your government representatives to ensure Lake Michigan is protected
Written by Kate Sackman